Putting children first Editorial
Stabroek News
January 31, 2004

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"Let us all resolve to put the welfare of the child first," Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, Dale Bisnauth, said at a seminar on Tuesday when he threw out a challenge to employers and civil society to become involved in the war to prevent and eliminate child labour.

The employment of children, mostly under grossly inhuman conditions, to the detriment of their education and development remains a problem in many countries in the world. Poor, developing countries are usually the worst culprits, but child labour still exists in many developed countries like the USA, the Global March Against Child Labour says on its website. In fact, in 1998, the US Department of Labour estimated that there were approximately 3.5 million "legal" child workers in the United States. However, it is generally believed by many child advocates that an additional 1.5 million underage children are working illegally on farms and in sweatshops.

Later this year, from May 10 to 13, the Global March Against Child Labour along with some three other organisations will bring together 500 former child labourers, activists and school children from around the world in Italy, for the first ever Children's World Congress on Child Labour. The congress will focus mainly on the worldwide crisis on education.

Global estimates are that there are some 115 million children today who should be attending school and are not. Chief among the reasons for this are poverty, armed conflict and child labour. At the other end of the scale are an estimated 860 million adults, who have gone through their entire lives unable to read a single word or even write their names. Most, if not all of these illiterate adults, would have been child labourers as it has been inherent in nations and cultures for hundreds of years.

Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child labour as any economic exploitation or work that is likely to be hazardous to or interfere with a child's education; or is harmful to a child's physical or mental health or spiritual, moral, or social development. Besides being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Guyana became a signatory to UN Convention 182 dealing with Prevention and Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 2001 and ratified eight core conventions. The minimum working age in Guyana is supposed to be 15 years. However, few if any of the children who sell limes, lemons, plastic bags and small items of haberdashery around the municipal markets have even entered their teens. The same goes for many 'sweetie' stall entrepreneurs.

Child labour statistics on Guyana up to 2000 revealed that approximately 11,000 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 years were formally employed, but child labour in the 'informal' sector was a problem, as was trafficking in children for sexual purposes. And the US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices for that same year found that the practice of teenage girls trading sexual favours for money was a problem.

The downturn in the economy, high cost of living, burgeoning AIDS and crime problems extend the very real possibility that these statistics have taken an upward trend and practices recorded as a 'problem' could have worsened in the last three years. Apart from the visible market hawkers and street vendors, children - some below the age of 15 - are working in Guyana as domestic servants, in the agriculture sector and possibly in very hazardous places.

Child labour is a very complex problem. Some children can and will starve if they do not work. But this should not be. While there is no simple solution - signing conventions and drafting legislation have not eliminated child labour - education is perhaps the key to freeing children from this stranglehold. But this education must be effective, affordable, of high quality and should also offer a vocational component. The Ministry of Education has taken a positive step in this direction this week, with the launching of its Basic Competency Certificate Programme, which is being piloted in six secondary schools and four practical instruction centres. This must be backed up by fair remuneration for teachers, proper classrooms and adequate text books.

Civil society and employers should accept the challenge to join the war against child labour. Some of the many ways in which they can contribute are by enforcing employment age limits, making tangible donations to schools and libraries, offering scholarships or joining Laparkan Group of Companies in its 'Teacher of the Year' award scheme. In the words of anti-child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi: "If not now, then when? And if not you, then who?"